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Recently my uncle, Bill Sanford, passed away at eighty-two years old. Bill was a minister in the Methodist Church. He was also one of the most purely positive role models in my life. I am grateful to Bill in countless ways for his loving presence, but I want to focus on the impact he had as a Christian on me as a lifelong agnostic. What a beautiful example he is of living the loving teachings of Jesus.

To explain Bill’s influence on me, it’s necessary to talk a little bit about me. I have always been an agnostic. I learned agnosticism at my parents’ knees as others learn Catholicism or Judaism. If I asked my parents if God existed, they would reply with “I don’t know.” This belief system was ingrained in me by the time I was five years old. In the years since, my sense of what agnosticism means has grown more complex, but I have never had the desire to be anything other than agnostic.

Being an Agnostic Kid in the United States

Compared to many countries, the United States, blessedly, has a high degree of religious freedom. But it is a nation culturally dominated by Christianity, and it is not always easy to be an agnostic child among a Christian majority. Here are a few of my childhood experiences:

In kindergarten, I had a Jehovah’s Witness friend. While she and her family were always nice to me, I was not allowed to play with her outside of school: my mother explained to me that they thought I was a bad influence because I wasn’t a Christian.

When I was five or six and playing with a friend at my house, I mentioned that I didn’t believe in God. My friend burst into tears and started walking for home (three miles away). As I followed her down the road, she explained, sobbing, that she couldn't play with me because I worshipped Satan. Finally I told her I did believe in God, which cheered her up. I think this is the only time I have ever flat-out lied about it.

At eleven, my lifelong best friend, a Catholic, noted offhandedly that I was damned. There was no malice in the statement: it was just a fact. I wasn’t a Christian, and only Christians are saved. (I should note that today's Catholic Church has a more nuanced view than this child's understanding.)

With such experiences, reinforced by cultural narratives like televangelists’, it is perhaps not surprising that as a child I was afraid of churches and resistant to Christian teachings. My mother dragged me to church once or twice for my cultural literacy. I remember sitting in Sunday School, being forced to sing “Jesus Loves Me” with a feeling of dark detestation at the fact that I was supposed to believe Jesus loved me because “the Bible tells me so,” as if we should believe everything we read!

But these negative impressions of Christianity were not my only childhood experience.
My Uncle the Minister )
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(light spoilers, not cutting)

In church today, we had the Earth Day service, which consisted of singing about gratitude to God for the glories of the Earth and about our responsibilities steward the Earth. Because I've been obsessing about Trigun, I found myself contemplating how Trigun's Plants function as a metaphor for ecological awareness.

There's something odd about locating gratitude for the Earth in God. There's nothing wrong with it per se, but it has a tendency to crowd out gratitude to the actual living beings that enable our lives every day. The putative ultimate cause of the biosphere gets praised while the myriad proximate causes get framed more like pretty presents someone has given us.

In Trigun, life on a harsh desert planet is enabled by sentient (power) Plants that generate the energy and chemical constituents necessary to wrest life out of this hostile environment. They are not God, nor are they a functioning biosphere unto themselves, but they are beings whose entire lives are devoted to ensuring human beings survive, and they are almost totally ignored--if not willfully exploited--by the humans who depend on them.

In this respect, they are a powerful metaphor for our dominant human attitude toward natural processes in general. We treat them--as the humans in Trigun do their Plants--like lab experiments we can manipulate at will and use with impunity. In the 21st century, most of us know better: we've certainly had no dearth of natural disasters to remind us of our smallness. But still we live as if we didn't see the lives inside the light bulbs.

labingi: (ivan)
For the Easter service in church today, they sang the "Hallelujah Chorus"--very well. I was surprised, given that completely unrehearsed people from the congregation were invited to come sing with the choir. It sounded almost professional.

It also resonated with the Easter theme for the continuing, timeless presence of Christ. I don't mean the words. The words are not brilliant; they basically boil down to, well, "hallelujah!" But that's the thing: the song is pure adulation; it is musically perhaps the best encapsulation I ever encountered of unbridled rejoicing.

It helped me understand Easter better, a holiday that has always bemused me. The death of Christ I understand, in the sense that its power has always spoken to me. The resurrection of Christ has always made me scratch my head; if anything, it's seemed to knock the force out of the sacrifice story. But today, I felt caught up in the rejoicing.

The song itself spoke to me of the persistence of joy in the world. It was written c. 1750 and has well passed its 250th birthday. Handel is long dead, but his expression of rejoicing remains. If he had done nothing else in his career, he would be well vindicated by this song. Generation after generation rejoices to it: it keeps uplifting hearts, as the idea of the resurrected Jesus does. It reminds us that in a world that seems bound to the endless repetitions of sorrow, there is an equally endless return to joy.

The moment in my life when I felt most inspired to sing this song (well, in my head) was when I heard that Obama had won the presidential election--not that I wanted him to be king of kings forever but because I felt a need to express rejoicing. For the first time in over 30 years of life, I felt like integrity had won over corruption.

I was proved wrong within about 6 months, and while I still personally like Obama, his near incapability to enact any meaningful reform has shaken my faith in the capacity of the American government to be reformed far more than Bush's presidency ever did. In the Bush years, we could blame Bush. But Obama is smart and fundamentally moral, and there's nothing to blame but the system. The smart and moral apparently can't win.

And yet, my memory of that evening miraculously remains unsullied. I don't feel betrayed that my brain sang several choruses of "Hallelujah," because the feeling itself was as precious as it was unprecedented, and the feeling had value, even if it presaged little practical good.

(P.S. Sorry, Ivan icon. I mock you, but I love you.)
labingi: (ivan)
Jeremiah: God Talks to Mister Smith

I was reading a review of Jeremiah the other day in which the commentator expressed some discomfort with the way Mister Smith is depicted as hearing the voice of God. The commentator stated that the effect was to make the existence of God a fact in Jeremiah canon in a way that left no room for diversity of nuance in belief. I understand this frustration, yet, curiously enough given that I'm a life-long agnostic, I don't share it. In the main, I have no problem with the depiction of Mister Smith's relationship with "God," and here's why...

Read more... )
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I have just finished reading, with great enjoyment, Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I had never read one of his books before and was charmed by his personable yet scholarly voice. I agreed with a lot of his arguments and, he would be pleased to hear, even felt myself swing a little further to the atheist side of the pendulum. But I did not agree with everything, so here I mount my defense of religion/"God" against Dawkins' assertions of its (at best) uselessness.

Oddly enough, spoilers for the end of Mirage of Blaze )


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